Five myths on unconscious bias – and how to tackle the issue

It's time to set the record straight

Five myths on unconscious bias – and how to tackle the issue

by Angela Peacock, global director of diversity and inclusion at training consultancy PDT Global, part of Affirmity

It's one thing to change an attitude or reaction you’re aware of. But changing something you don’t even know you’re doing is much more difficult. Therein lies the challenge of addressing unconscious bias in the workplace.

But the stakes are high. Employees at large companies who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely to be disengaged at work – and to plan to leave their current jobs within the year. Many studies also suggest that unconscious bias contributes to lack of diversity in boardrooms, which hinders performance and creates opportunities for more-diverse organizations to gain an edge.

McKinsey & Company, for example, has reported that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than those in the fourth quartile. For companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity on their executive teams, the likelihood of outperformance rose to 33%.

But myths about unconscious bias still abound. So, let's clear up some of the most popular ones:

1. We don’t need to worry any more about conscious bias or bigotry

Individual acts of verbal, physical and emotional violence against people due to their real or perceived group membership are still common. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Hidden and micro-acts of aggression – the look, the intake of breath, not sitting next to someone, not putting them on that special project – they all count and add up to a toxic environment.

2. I don’t have any unconscious biases

We have evolved to constantly and unconsciously make immediate decisions based on limited data and pre-existing patterns. It has kept us safe. But in this new world – where the talent you want to work in your organization does not walk like you, talk like you, act like you or smell like you – that wonderful brain is letting you down.

3. I know what my unconscious biases are

You may have a sense of what some of your biases are – but be blind to others. Keep in mind that our unconscious biases can often conflict with our conscious beliefs and values, and we may even hold negative unconscious biases against our own group. You are not your biases – any more than you are not responsible for the aggressive act of your child. But you are responsible for curbing them, educating and dealing with them.

4. Since everyone’s biased, we can move on from that tired conversation about racism/sexism, etc

Unless you have been living under a stone, you will know that now is the time to face these conversations and tackle them directly. This is not an excuse, it is not mitigation – it's a huge call to learn more about how these unconscious biases work with the conscious ones to create systemic biases in our communities and organizations.

5. Since unconscious bias is unconscious, there’s nothing I can do about it

Excellent suggestions abound about how to mitigate the effect of negative unconscious bias in talent management and hiring practices through awareness, calibration and effective behaviors. But you have to want to – and you have to be humble enough to first recognize that your reactions are being controlled by these biases.

Tips for tackling unconscious bias

Awareness of what your particular unconscious biases are is the first step towards tackling them. Become aware of who you feel 'comfortable' with – and who you don’t. Once you observe this, begin to observe the opposite. What are the groups you don’t feel like that around? You are then on your way to exploring the hidden assumptions we all make every day.

Empathy is key, particularly 'perspective taking'. The ability to feel or imagine what another person feels or might feel by taking some time to have an introductory discussion around career goals, relationships or hobbies can positively impact the relationship with that person before you move on to speak about work.

Exposure to other groups, the differences between the groups, and individuals in the group and their successes helps to challenge stereotypes that may have built up in your mind. Mixing with a variety of people outside your traditional circle helps break down assumptions.

Use positive stereotype imagery to imagine alternatives to any negative ones you may have in your mind. This positive and proactive approach to changing stereotypes involves considering the diversity within your social and work groups, as well as the many examples of those you don’t know personally – such as athletes, politicians, and celebrities – who break the stereotypes.

Micro-affirmations are small gestures of respect and inclusion – and can help you to become more consciously fair. More focus given to listening, inclusion, valuing, and engaging with those from all groups helps to make the workplace a more equitable environment.

Above all, the real key to progress in tackling unconscious bias lies in embedding. A 'one and done' training approach does not work. The focus needs to be on embedding the training, whether that is a series of conversations leaders have with their teams following the training – or video nudges that interrupt you just before an interview or at talent management time. Regularly reigniting the learning is the secret of success. Keeping that conversation alive – and creating an environment where we call in clearly biased statements and actions – is essential.

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